Violence on island of broken promises
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday March 26, 2011
As the smoke clear after the detention centre riots, the government is still not asking the big questions, writes David Marr. Now we are shooting them. Tear-gas, batons and water cannon were used years ago when unrest swept detention centres. But a fresh line was crossed on March 13 and crossed again a few nights later when Australian Federal Police at Christmas Island's North West Point detention centre fired on asylum seekers. Then the place was torched.The riots mark the failure of another great Kevin Rudd initiative: to process all boat-people on this remote island. Logistical miracles are required to keep it operating. Distance makes everything so difficult. It costs a fortune: five times as much to process refugees out there as on the mainland. The Ombudsman, Allan Asher, declared in February this year: "The current scale of the operation on Christmas Island is not sustainable".On North West Point men with nothing to do but wait were sleeping in classrooms, in storerooms, in visiting areas and in big airconditioned tents pitched in low security Aqua and Lilac compounds. Though the government had been warned repeatedly that tents could only be a temporary solution and would exacerbate tensions in the centre, hundreds of men had been living cheek by jowl in them for a year. They stank.Last November frustrated detainees sewed their lips together, began hunger strikes and demonstrated week after week demanding action on their visa claims. Many had been waiting eight or nine months for their first interview. Hundreds had been given refugee status but were waiting for ASIO security clearances. A handful had been rejected.Promises were made that new systems would speed outcomes. They didn't. Separated from their families, increasingly anxious, frequently irrational, the men went on waiting. It rained ceaselessly. Aqua and Lilac turned into a tropical swamp.The breakout: Friday, March 11.Serco had a new boss on the island: Wendy Sinclair with a background in prison administration in Britain. Detainees woke to find the centre locked down: the roller doors between the various compounds had been closed. Tempers flared.A few detainees pushed over the outer fence of Aqua and Lilac and about 70 more - mainly Iraqis and Iranians - followed them out of the camp heading for the only town on the island, 15 kilometres away. Some bananas were stolen from a farm. The escapees went to the beach, prayed at the mosque and hung around the airport.Next day another 100 men followed them out of the camp as police reinforcements and extra Serco guards arrived on the island. Television crews were also on the way. The islanders were upset about the breakout but it was peaceful: there appear to be no reports of violence or threats of violence towards them. Most of the detainees then drifted back to North West Point.The first shooting:Sunday, March 13.In the afternoon Serco assembled staff - including kitchen hands and office staff - for a show of force at North West Point. Also present were staff from the Immigration Department and more than 80 officers of the AFP's operational response group. The plan was to seize the ringleaders and hold them in the high security Red compound.Red had almost never been used in the history of the centre. The provocative decision to bring it into operation was apparently taken in Canberra by the Immigration Department. About a dozen men were seized but the compound was then stormed by hundreds of angry detainees. Serco and Immigration staff tried to shelter inside Red's "secure nodes" but the electric doors didn't work. The staff were scared but unhurt.A decision was taken at this point - apparently by the police alone - to disperse the detainees with tear-gas and beanbag shot. These bundles of shot are designed to stun but the US Department of Justice warns they can also kill. As the shooting began, Serco staff made calls on their mobile phones: "You won't f---ing believe this. They're shooting them. There's tear-gas."A young man called Amir was felled by shot and his leg was later broken in a melee that continued for some hours until staff and police withdrew from the compounds.The AFP knows all about facing hostile crowds in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. The beanbag shot they have had for about a decade has only ever been used out there, never at home. Par for the course in the Pacific, it is something new for crowd control in Australia.Next day the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, sent his Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution - Paris Aristotle, former Air Marshal Ray Funnell and Professor Nicholas Procter - to the island. They began negotiations with the detainees on Tuesday. It appeared all but a small group were mollified and prepared to accept fresh assurances that reforms to the system already in train would yield faster visa outcomes.Second tear-gassing:Wednesday, March 16.Detainees continued to gather and demonstrate, carrying white sheets and strips of toilet paper to signal their peaceful intentions. They asked to be allowed to speak to the media. When police refused, about 150 men made towards the gate. Some detainees threw rocks. Others were trying to stop them. All were dispersed with tear-gas.More shooting, gas and burning:Thursday, March 17.In the afternoon detainees received a letter from the Australian government that began: "Your concerns about delay in finalising cases are understandable". Promises were made to speed up assessments and move people off the island. "The Australian government will do these things, provided facilities remain calm."The letter appeared to do its work. Detainees expressed gratitude. Others were apologetic for the disturbances of the last days. But a hard core, now more and more isolated, were determined to keep causing trouble. People milled about. Fires were lit in wheelie bins. At 8.15pm about 200 men - many wearing towels wrapped round their heads to protect themselves from tear-gas - began advancing on the police.At this point there were 1800 detainees in North West Point. There were also about 23 men in custody in Red compound. No Tamils were involved in the disturbances. Almost all the Hazaras and the Iraqi Kurds also stayed clear of the trouble from the start. Now about 300 detainees retreated to the gymnasium to separate themselves from the protests. With the police inside the compound were a number of Serco guards.Deputy Commissioner Steve Lancaster, of the AFP, said protesters were carrying "accelerant-based weapons, poles, bricks, pavers, concrete rocks and also a wheelie bin full of rocks".The compound was flooded with tear gas. "None of the workers knew that it was going to be bombarded by tear gas and they were caught in the compound," Kay Bernard, secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers, told New Matilda. "They'd never seen anything like that in their lives. These are level-two security officers, undertaking very difficult work, and suddenly they are in a war zone."Shooting started as a small group made to break through the fences. From a nearby hill television cameras filmed a scene of smoke lit by the trace of beanbag bullets. Lancaster spoke of a "higher volume of deployment" of these rounds. Many detainees were felled. The gym was attacked by stone-throwing protesters. Lancaster reported: "Those seeking refuge inside had to be safely removed from the attack."Absolutely unmourned by Serco or anyone else, the tents in Aqua and Lilac went up in flames. A couple of "dongas" used as dormitories were also torched. At 10pm the police assumed formal control of North West Point. In the early hours of the morning the camp was again calm.But for the toxic politics of the boats, the problem of these boats could be solved relatively easily. Bowen has been bringing down the numbers on Christmas Island for months. Now they are being reduced more radically. But Labor remains committed to offshore processing out in the Indian Ocean. The opposition is once again crying "Stop the Boats" but right now the problem is the rock.Lawyers, churches, charities, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Amnesty International, Immigration Department advisers and refugee advocates have been calling for years for processing to be abandoned on Christmas Island. In the midst of the recent violence the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson, QC, reminded Canberra: "We have recommended for more than two years now that the government stop holding people in detention on Christmas Island".Way out there, police are now holding 150 men for questioning. They face serious charges. Mainland lawyers are going to have to be found for them - somehow, sometime and at some cost. Meanwhile, Bowen has ordered a high-level, independent inquiry into the handling of this crisis by Serco and his own department - but not, for reasons best known to him, into the role of the police.In Bali this week Bowen will pursue his hoped for "regional solution" for the problem of the boats. But so far no other country in these parts has volunteered to help Australia share its burden - and there are lots more boats on the way.